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'We Don't Have A Tribal Wikipedia': Kiowa Struggle With Pandemic Loss, But Remain Vibrant

kiowacovidtesting_jan2021.jpg
Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma
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Kiowa tribal employees wait to get tested for the coronavirus outside Red Buffalo Hall in Carnegie, Okla. in January.

In February, the United States passed the grim milestone of 500,000 deaths from COVID-19. The pandemic has hit Indigenous communities particularly hard. In some tribal nations, the virus has taken first language speakers and the culture bearers who hold knowledge that marks the tribal nation's identity. That's especially true for the Kiowa Tribe in Southwest Oklahoma.

 

Vernon "Cy" Ahtone, a Kiowa elder and culture bearer, has some insight into why tornadoes happen. 

"Tornado happens because Saynday was coming along one time and he saw all these things going on and he didn't see many more. And so there was this one particular place that he wanted to concentrate on. So he sent a big wind to them."

That's just one of many stories Ahtone tells of how the Kiowa came to understand the world.

More than 30 Kiowa first language speakers, singers and people with important cultural knowledge like Ahtone have died from COVID-19, including two tribal legislators who died within a four month period. For Ahtone, who recently attended the funeral of a friend, the loss has taken a toll. 

"I have a very close friend that I grew up with, my age. And he got sick and seven days later was dead," said Ahtone. "His wife died about a week and a half later for the same reason. You asked me how I feel about it... I feel mad."

The 72-year-old is a master of ceremonies at the Kiowa Tribe's annual Black Leggings Warrior Society gatherings, a long held tradition that honors veterans and warriors dating back almost 200 years. Last year's gathering was cancelled due to the pandemic.

The tribal nation received $26 million in CARES Act money. Kiowa leadership established a COVID-19 response unit to process applications for relief funds for citizens who lost work or need financial assistance during the pandemic. But some, like District 7 legislator Jacob Tsotigh, say the efforts to get Kiowas vaccinated haven't been aggressive enough. 

"That's one of the frustrations we have as a tribe. There's no coordinated efforts from the administration to really provide a cohesive program of outreach and of information," said Tsotigh. "And dissemination is largely dependent on social media." 

That can be a problem when internet service in some rural communities in Oklahoma isn't as robust. And some elders don't use computers, let alone social media.

While other tribal nations have prioritized vaccinations for first language speakers and elders, it's unclear, outside of social media posts, how the Kiowa Tribe communicated with tribal citizens and the community at large about lifesaving vaccinations. This, despite Caddo County having some of the highest cases in Oklahoma. 

"There's a lot of obstacles in our way," said Kiowa Chairman Matthew Komalty. "You know, we put out a lot of money to our people as much as we could."

The tribal council voted last summer to impeach Komalty over his handling of CARES Act funds. He's also been accused by the legislature of illegally terminating a Kiowa gaming employee, giving salary increases without approval and failing to go through the proper process on the annual tribal audit.

Komalty denies any wrongdoing and ultimately won an injunction to halt the impeachment process in the Indian Court of Offenses for the Southwest region of Oklahoma. Instead, he says the legislative branch delayed aid to Kiowa who needed assistance because of those impeachment proceedings. 

One of those legislators leading the charge to impeach Komalty was J.T. Goombi, who believed passionately in reforming the Kiowa government. He died from COVID-19 in January. Angela Chaddlesone McCarthy, Goombi's predecessor, also died after contracting the virus last September.

Kaylen Tofpi, a nurse at the Lawton Indian Health Service, lost her father Roger DeWayne Tofpi in January, within a week of him testing positive for COVID-19. He was a leader in the Native American Church, a singer in the Black Leggings Warrior Society and a Gourd Dance singer. 

"Every person that crossed his path, he wanted to bless them and he wanted good things for them and their families and their loved ones," said Topfi. 

Topfi doesn't lay blame on anyone for her dad passing away. She said she has seen vaccinations pick up in the last few months, but wishes the surrounding community in Carnegie and Anadarko, where many Kiowa live, would take masking and social distancing seriously. 

Blas Preciado can relate. He is the Vice Commander of the Black Leggings Warrior Society, and has lost a number of friends from the society, including his cousin.

"Rudy Ventista was one of the first of our Kiowa of people to die of this pandemic of the COVID-19," said Preciado.

Ventista was the second oldest member of the society, fluent in the Kiowa language and wrote about Kiowa culture for future generations. 

"He wrote about our dress, you know, how we dress in modern day and a little bit about our history, Preciado said. “He was our link."

Dorothy Whitehorse DeLaune is another link between generations of Kiowa. She grew up speaking Kiowa in Anadarko in the 1930s. She's been riding out the pandemic giving language classes through Zoom.

In a moment where people are talking about their place in society and cultural preservation, DeLaune knows the transition of generational knowledge is so important right now.

"This COVID has taken some of my dearest, dearest people and I just...I can't even cry anymore," said DeLaune. "We have to go on living for the good of the ones coming behind us."

Goombi was a friend of DeLaune's and participated in a project called Kiowa Talk Radio, a language and culture project. DeLaune's best friend Dorothy Palmer, another first language speaker, also died from the virus. She says they were like family.

"She married somebody from New Jersey and I married someone from Louisiana, but eventually we both came back here. Trips to the casino and trips to church….we've done together and she was my sister," said DeLaune. 

DeLaune said she was talking to her friend who said she felt like she had a cold. A few days later, her two daughters came by to tell her that she had passed away.

Cases in Caddo County have started to fall. Many people give credit to the vaccine rollout from tribal nations throughout Oklahoma.

Ahtone, Preciado and DeLaune have all been vaccinated and all three are hoping there will be an annual Black Leggings Warrior Society gathering this year. DeLaune is already planning for it.  

"I want to put on my dancing clothes and I want to go tothe annual Black Leggings Society," said DeLaune. "I want to hear those songs and I want to dance even if I have to use my walker."

Elders like Ahtone carry on the Kiowa Tribe’s long tradition of keeping history through storytelling, language and visual calendars. Traditions he says don’t easily translate to the digitally-distanced world of the pandemic. 

"We don't have a tribal Wikipedia. We talk to one another and are able to transfer our feelings, our thoughts,"explained Ahtone about how knowledge is transferred to others. 

Ahtone is hoping for the return of gatherings. He knows the more time that goes by without hearing the songs in person, the more likely they will be forgotten. 

"Some people say, 'Cy teach me how to sing'," he said. But Ahtone explained that teaching someone is hard without being around others and observing. He says no one can teach you.

"You have to want to learn. You have to hear the songs. And that feeling has to come to you," Ahtone said. "And, without it being where they can experience the feeling, some people call it the spirit, then we're being lax in our teaching."

As more people get vaccinated and as cases and deaths start to fall in Oklahoma, Ahtone, Preciado and DeLaune are hopeful for some return to normalcy and a time when they can honor those who were lost to the pandemic.

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Allison Herrera is a radio and print journalist who's worked for PRX's The World, Colorado Public Radio as the climate and environment editor and as a freelance reporter for High Country News’ Indigenous Affairs desk.
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